College football is a coaches’ game. That’s not a cliché. Follow the history of college football and look at it today and the best teams have the best coaches. No one needs to look beyond Tuscaloosa to see the truth of the adage.
Alabama Coach Nick Saban is universally regarded as the best coach in college football today, and, indeed, one of the best of all time.
When the Crimson Tide coach took the podium at Southeastern Conference Media Days Wednesday for the 10th time as Bama’s coach and 15th all time, he opened his remarks with a coaching notation:
“The one thing that I will miss,” he said, “is I'm usually up here responding to some barb from Coach Spurrier, who is no longer with us and is retired, and probably playing a lot of golf, which we just wish he and Jerri the very best in the future. He's made a tremendous impact on the game and I'm sure will continue to do that with his leadership and deeds and actions even though he's not coaching.”
Steve Spurrier had been a star of SEC Media Days for many years, from his time as Florida’s head coach and then as the head man at South Carolina. He resigned midway through last season.
Beyond that, coaches were a big part of Saban’s presentation.
He discussed the new coaches on his staff.
Saban said, “We have a new defensive coordinator, Jeremy Pruitt, who was with us for five or six years prior to going to Florida State where they won the national championship when he was defensive coordinator, and did a really good job improving Georgia's defense. And he knows the system.
“Derrick Ansley is going to be a secondary coach who has also been on our staff before. Karl Dunbar will be the defensive line coach who has also been on our staff before way back at LSU.
“So, we have [new] people, but they have experience. They have experience in our system. And it's a very, very good group of guys and work well together, and I think we'll be able to be a very effective defensive staff.
“Brent Key was brought in to be the offensive line coach, and Mario Cristobal will be tackle tight end coach. I thought we needed some help in that area. Brent has certainly done a good job, and his energy and enthusiasm has been very helpful.”
Lane Kiffin will be starting his third year as Alabama’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. It’s safe to say that not many expected Kiffin to have the success he has had in developing Bama’s quarterbacks and offense, but on Wednesday Saban was asked how Kiffin has helped Saban improve as a coach.
Saban said, “I think that everyone on our staff, I think we all try to improve each other. I think every new coach that you bring to your staff, when you bring them, brings positive energy, new ideas, new enthusiasm.
“So, I think every coach that we brought in has made an improvement in terms of helping me develop new ideas, new experiences, because we're always all looking for a better way.
“And I think all of the coaches on our staff have done very well when it comes to that responsibility of looking for a better way and doing a good job. And I think, you know, coaches do a good job in a lot of ways.
“If they are coordinators, are they good play callers? Are they good on game day? Do they do a good job of game planning and helping teach the assistants on your staff how to teach that game plan to the players? That's critical. It's not just calling plays in the game. It's doing that part of it.
“And then we all have to coach a position. So you have to develop the players at your position fundamentally and technically. Not only just teaching them the game plan of what to do, but how do you need to do it. And then recruiting is such a big factor in what we all do. So, it's a lot more than just one particular thing of calling plays that make somebody a real asset on your staff.”
A big part of SEC Media Days prior to Saban’s appearance dealt with three former Saban assistants now having head jobs in the SEC – Jim McElwain at Florida, Will Muschamp at South Carolina, and Kirby Smart at Georgia. Saban got a couple of questions about his assistants (also including Jimbo Fisher at Florida State and Mark D’Antonio at Michigan State) having head coaching success.
Saban said, “We’re always very happy and pleased, whether it's Jimbo Fisher at Florida State, Mark Dantonio at Michigan State, the three coaches in the SEC, to see guys who have done a fantastic job for us -- for a long, long time in some cases -- get the opportunity or have the opportunity come to fruition that they've worked hard to try to achieve in their own personal career.
Hopefully some of the things they've learned in our program will help them be successful, and we certainly wish every one of those guys the utmost luck in terms of turning their programs and having successful programs. And every one of those guys did a fantastic job for us, and we have a tremendous amount of respect and appreciate the job that they did.”
A followup question touched on how Saban feels when he faces one of his former assistants.
He said, “There’s a lot of excitement for me because these guys have opportunities and we want to see them do extremely well and the opportunities that they have. I think it reflects favorably on our program and what we've done, and those guys all did a fantastic job for us.
“But, when it comes right down to it, when we play each other, even though you have a tremendous amount of respect for them, all they've done for you and the job they've done where they are, and you have that respect because you work with them and you know them really, really well. You also have a tremendous amount of respect for your team now, you know, the players on your team, the work they've done, the coaches on your staff that have worked hard to sort of develop this chemistry.
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“So your focus is on what do we do to help our group of players, regardless who we're playing against, sort of do their best in that circumstance and situation. I think in every case when I've played against a former assistant, whether Mark at Michigan State or Jim at Florida last year in the SEC Championship game or Will when he was at Florida, the respect has grown each time because of what they've been able to do as head coaches. And makes you proud that they are doing well. But you're also proud that, you know, your current team is doing the best they can do as well.”